Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Google is changing up search. What does that mean for news publishers?
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
June 12, 2020, 11:03 a.m.
Business Models

The Dallas Morning News is testing out reporter-specific promo codes for readers on the fence about subscribing

“Being able to link the promo code to heartfelt messages of why local journalism is so important right now is like a one-two punch that we thought would be powerful with readers.”

Journalists around the world are three months into working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. As initial online traffic has surged and tapered, newsrooms are now working on ways to capitalize on the extra attention they’ve been getting and sustaining new and returning readers longterm.

The Dallas Morning News‘ latest experiment to boost digital subscriptions is something you’ve seen before. If you’ve ever been tempted to buy a lipstick off Instagram because an influencer gave you a discount code (guilty), this works in the same way.

Readers can plug in a promo code at checkout to get one free month of digital access to The Dallas Morning News. The newspaper is currently offering a monthly digital subscription at $1.99 per week ($8.62 total, plus tax).

Director of digital strategy Nicole Stockdale said the idea came out of a meeting with DMN’s “digital cabinet,” a group of people across the organization that gets together to discuss new ideas and experiments. Assistant sports editor Scott Bell suggested that the sports section would be a perfect place to try these out because of the unique relationships sports writers have with their readers. They worked with the marketing department to set up individual promo codes and launched them in mid-January.

Just as Stockdale was getting ready to open up the codes to the rest of the newsroom, the Dallas Morning News had to shift to a remote newsroom because of Covid-19. She paused rolling it out further to adjust to the new reality, but after a few weeks of seeing traffic and engagement increases, it seemed like a good time to move forward. Staffers who wanted a code received one on April 21.

“We see so many [journalists] who are out in their social feeds and talking to their friends and describing in heartfelt detail why this work is so important, or what they did to get this news, telling the story behind the story, and asking people to subscribe,” Stockdale said. “Seeing those messages, we knew this was a good time for us to be able to bring those promo codes back and give people one more tool to help make that case.”

What these promo codes are not, Stockdale emphasized, are an additional burden on reporters to meet a quota. No one is required to garner a number of subscriptions and the results aren’t tied to their performances. So far, 112 promo codes have been used and two-thirds of those users became paying subscribers at the end of the first free month. No one who became a paying member has canceled a subscription, Stockdale said.

“What makes this different is that these are the conversations that journalists are already having with people that follow them on social media,” Stockdale said. “What they’re doing there is telling these important stories about why subscriptions matter or what they individually did to get this story. Being able to link the promo code to heartfelt messages of why local journalism is so important right now is like a one-two punch that we thought would be powerful with readers, especially right now when we do see an influx of new readers who are finding this journalism that’s really important to them in this unprecedented time.”

In terms of total subscriptions, DMN ended its fourth quarter of 2019 with 35,759 digital-only subscriptions. On that earnings call, CEO Robert W. Decherd also said the company had added 3,600 subscriptions in the first quarter of 2020, putting the total at 39,359 at the end of March.

The idea of journalists dipping into promotion still makes some folks uneasy (I wrote about how this is the case in public radio in December) because it feels like they’re dipping into the business side. But Stockdale argued that journalists are the ones uniquely positioned to ask for subscriptions because of their existing relationships with readers and because they know their own work best.

“Some newsrooms, and probably our newsroom five years ago, may have been hesitant to jump into the fray because there’s this feeling that still lingers that it feels weird for the journalists to be selling subscriptions,” Stockdale said. “You see that hesitance a lot less, and I think it’s going away. There’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be out there telling our stories and helping people understand the value of a subscription and how the support that they give to local news in the form of a subscription helps make possible the work that we’re doing.”

POSTED     June 12, 2020, 11:03 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Business Models
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Google is changing up search. What does that mean for news publishers?
A shift to AI-generated search results will decrease the traffic that Google sends to publishers’ sites, as more people get what they need straight from the Google search page instead.
The Athletic’s live audio rooms bring sports talk radio into this century
The Athletic’s first live room took place in September 2021. By January 2022, they’d done 100. Today, they’re closing in on 1,000.
In Spain, a new data-powered news outlet aims to increase accountability reporting
Demó, launched in March, publishes data-driven reporting and plans to expand.